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What Colleges Look For In Their Applicants

November 8, 2009

What do highly selective institutions try to accomplish in choosing a class from a large pool of applicants who present themselves for consideration?

university gatesWilliam Bowen and Derek Bok, former Presidents of Princeton and Harvard, respectively, describe the broad aims of the admissions process in The Shape of the River, a book they co-authored to study the issue of long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Below are a couple of excerpts from this book. The first, from chapter 2 – The Admissions Process and “Race-Neutrality”, gives a glimpse of what the top schools in the country look for in their applicants, and the second prefaces Chapter 3 – Academic Outcomes; it’s a nicely worded summary of the college experience.

[Excerpts from The Shape of the River]

The most fundamental objective is to be sure that the qualifications of all admitted students are above a high academic threshold. Admissions officers seek to offer places in the class only to those applicants whom they deem intellectually (and otherwise) capable of completing the academic program successfully and benefiting significantly from the experience. The nature of the courses applicants have taken, their secondary school grades, and their standardized test scores are particularly helpful in making these judgments.

Admissions officers typically give siginificant weight to four considerations in deciding among the [worthy] candidates:

  • The first consideration is to admit an ample number of students who show particular promise of excelling in their studies.
  • The second consideration is the need to assemble a class of students with a wide diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and talents.
  • The third principal consideration is to attract students who seem especially likely to utilize their education to make valuable or distinctive contributions to their professions and to the welfare of society.
  • The fourth consideration is to respect the importance of long-term institutional loyalties and traditions.

Numerical measures of academic qualifications (principally SAT scores and high school grades) play an important role in the sorting and sifting of applicants to selective schools, but they are by no means the only factors considered. The myth of pure merit, held and celebrated by many, would have us believe that these institutions want only the “book smart, test smart” students [...] But the truth is that admitting students is far more an eclectic and interpretive art – with decisions based on judgment, experience, and perhaps even accumulated wisdom – than a series of formulaic calculations.

The admissions process — emotionally exhausting as it is for students, their families and the admissions officers themselves* — eventually comes to an end. Students are admitted, rejected, or put on a waiting list; they choose from among the schools that accept them; they collect their belongings; they go off to college — leaving their parents, as one resigned mother put it, “emptying their purses in the cause of higher education.” A whole new world of options is available. Some students will focus from the first day on building their resumes for the next application process four years in the future. Some will celebrate the social freedom bestowed upon them by virtue of being on their own for the first time while others will be tormented with homesickness. Some will find themselves momentarily confused, having met their long-standing goal of getting into college and unsure of what to do next. Some will lose themselves in their studies, while still others will simply feel lost. The admissions process — with its ultimate “yes or no” conclusion — is quickly seen to have been a beginning rather than an end.

Perhaps the only thing that all will have in common is that each is a student. They will all receive grades. In time, if they stay enrolled, they will choose a major. Most of them will graduate. Some will leave full of regret (”I was young and stupid”), while others will have none (”I just felt that each day of college was better than the last”). No matter what college teaches them about themselves or about life, and no matter what they do after graduating, their experiences as students offer the first testimony about the efficacy of the admissions process.

*The highly intense, demanding nature of the admissions process at many selective colleges and universities — the very antithesis of a mechanical, by-the-numbers approach — is illustrated by the following account of life in the admissions office during the three months prior to mailing of acceptance and rejection letters: “Illness is not tolerated; personal problems are forbidden; family relationships are put on hold … None of life’s emergencies can be accommodated … birth and death … cannot be allowed to disrupt the reading schedule. The whole day, for eleven or twelve weeks straight, revolves around reading those files” (From Questions and Admissions: Reflections in 100,000 Admissions Decisions at Stanford by Jean Fetter (1995))

(Excerpts from The Shape of the River (1998) by William Bowen and Derek Bok. William G. Bowen is President of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the former President of Princeton University. Derek Bok is the 300th Anniversary University Professor at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. He is former President of Harvard University and the former Dean of the Harvard Law School.)

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